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Arctic Region Partnerships

Claudia A. McMurray, Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
Remarks to the 5th Annual US-Denmark-Greenland JCM
Washington, DC
May 7, 2008

Introduction

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me. Welcome to Secretary Zilmer-Johns and Minister Olsen and all of our friends from Denmark and Greenland. I appreciate you being here and sharing your insights and ideas. Together our countries have an opportunity to strengthen our partnership on many issues, from health and science and environment, to trade and tourism. I’d like to talk about this partnership as it relates to the Arctic region. I will focus on what we are doing now and what we need to do together to protect this unique region while safeguarding national and international interests.

The United States is, of course, an Arctic nation. The U.S. has had a wide range of interests in the Arctic from the time we purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. During the Cold War, national security was the top foreign policy priority for us in the Arctic. National security remains a priority to this day. In the last fifteen years, we broadened our focus to protecting the Arctic environment and dealing with the unique issues that local populations face in this area.

Biodiversity

Let me touch on some of our recent work to protect the biological diversity of this special place. In November 2007, we announced in an Arctic Council meeting that the U.S. will co-lead with Finland the first-ever Arctic biological diversity assessment, the first phase of which will be released in 2010.

More specifically, on polar bears – an icon of this region – the U.S. is already a party to two agreements that protect the polar bear. In 2007, the U.S. Senate ratified a bilateral treaty with Russia on the conservation and management of the polar bear populations we share. We are also a party, with Denmark, Norway, Canada, and Russia, to a 1973 multilateral agreement on polar bear conservation. Last June, the U.S. hosted a meeting of the so-called "range states" to discuss scientific and policy developments. A Greenland delegation participated in the meeting. This meeting provided useful input into a decision the U.S. Secretary of the Interior must soon make on whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species under our Endangered Species Act.

In addition, the National Marine Fisheries Service has begun a study of the five species of ice seals to determine whether the condition of any of those species warrants a listing under the Endangered Species Act. These are but a few examples of our conservation work.

Reviewing U.S. Policy

In recent months, the U.S. government decided to look strategically at the work we have done in the Arctic and see how we need to build on it. This review is our first comprehensive look since 1994. The Department of State is co-leading the process with the National Security Council. Although this is essentially an internal exercise, we have sought and received input from a wide variety of U.S. stakeholders with interests in the Arctic. As I just mentioned, the United States issued its current Arctic policy on June 9, 1994. While that review focused on important issues of environmental protection, national security, and scientific research, much has changed in the Arctic in the last decade.

Climate change is having dramatic effects – most notably there is a significant melting of Arctic sea ice in the summer months. Along with our growing concern over these trends, we anticipate growing human activity in shipping and energy development, among other things. These new activities will undoubtedly have significant impacts on the Arctic environment. Increased activity may have other consequences as well.

Our policy review focuses on these changes and their implications for national and homeland security, the mapping of our extended continental shelf, energy exploration, environmental protection, and conservation of natural resources. All of these are important issues that call upon the expertise of almost every part of our government. We hope to finalize our new policy in the very near future.

Partnership (Denmark and Greenland)

At the same time we are conducting our policy review, we are actively working with other Arctic nations on these issues. In recent months, all Arctic states have increased their focus here. The United States will continue to work closely with Denmark and the Greenland Home Rule Government on areas of mutual concern.

I have been privileged to participate in conferences organized by your neighbor Norway on Arctic security issues and on legal issues in the Arctic. I look forward to traveling to Ilullissat later this month for the Arctic Ocean Conference. This is a timely conference, and we look forward to participating in it.

We appreciate the interest of Denmark and the Greenland Home Rule Government in organizing and hosting the Arctic Ocean Conference later this month. We understand that the focus of the meeting is Arctic Ocean issues. Our delegations will be discussing:

  • the effect of climate change on the Arctic;

  • issues relating to local inhabitants and indigenous communities;

  • commercial opportunities in the Arctic;

  • and foreign policy issues relating to the Arctic.

The United States already enjoys extensive scientific cooperation with Greenland. The National Science Foundation collaborates with Greenlandic researchers on a wide range of research projects, and the U.S. Geological Survey and Greenland have just concluded a memorandum of understanding for scientific research. You heard more about the potential for further collaboration earlier today. We appreciate the good cooperation we enjoy with Greenland in scientific research. The Arctic environment and the changes we are observing in the Arctic remain poorly understood.

Decisions and actions must be based on sound scientific and socioeconomic information. Arctic environmental research, monitoring and vulnerability assessments must be a top priority, and we believe that we can best address the changes we are observing in the Arctic through robust international scientific cooperation in the Arctic.

Broader Partnership (i.e. Arctic Council, IPY)

These examples show excellent cooperation among the Arctic coastal states. We also work on Arctic issues with an even greater number of countries on the Arctic Council and elsewhere. The Arctic Council is a high level forum which now forms the basis of extensive cooperation among the eight Arctic states on subjects related to environmental protection and sustainable development. It is the only formal diplomatic forum that brings together the Arctic States in a single place devoted to Arctic issues.

The Council undertakes projects through six working groups. In addition, as you well know, it is the only international forum where indigenous people have a seat at the table with governments. The Department of State leads the U.S. delegation to the Arctic Council. We have found it to be a valuable forum for collaborating on common interests and challenges with our Arctic neighbors.

Some of the best and brightest government scientists and policy makers undertake the work of the Arctic Council, and it’s no surprise that through it they have done some ground-breaking work. Probably the most well-known of the Arctic Council’s projects is the 2004 "Arctic Climate Impact Assessment" which produced a first hard look at how climate change is affecting the Arctic and revealed the very rapid pace at which the many changes are taking place. To this day, the scientific community uses the Assessment’s results in Arctic monitoring and its graphics appear almost daily in the mainstream and the trade press. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment was truly a major achievement involving hundreds of scientists from around the world, and the U.S. initiated it and provided most of the funding for the Assessment over the four years it was in development.

Another ground-breaking project for the Arctic Council was the 2004 "Arctic Human Development Report" which was the first-ever comprehensive look at the state of the human condition across the region. The U.S. was also heavily involved in this project, and it has led to a number of "spin-off" projects the Council is now engaged in, such as the "Economy of the North", which is an in-depth analysis of the industries, employers, types of occupations, and salary ranges – among other things – that make up the economic engine of the Arctic region.

Within the Arctic Council, the U.S. has also led an Arctic Human Health Initiative that looks at a wide range of human health concerns, from infectious diseases to traditional indigenous diets to suicide rates, to lifestyle-related problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse and obesity. Our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention won the distinction of getting the Initiative into the International Polar Year. These are just a few examples of the important work of the Arctic Council. The products that the Council produces demonstrate that the Arctic is a bell-weather of the health and prosperity of the rest of the world.

Many countries have also cooperated during this International Polar Year celebration. This fourth IPY will lead to unprecedented understanding of the Poles and how they interact with the rest of the planet. The sheer volume of scientific data that will emerge from this two-year effort will be very significant.

In addition, next year the U.S. will be hosting the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and the Parties will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty. In connection with the Meeting, we plan to convene a joint high-level session with the Arctic Council – the first meeting of its kind. This one-day meeting will provide an opportunity for the diplomatic community to express support for IPY, for polar science, and for future peaceful cooperation at the Poles.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think all here will agree that the Arctic is an extremely important area for a sustained focus for the months and years to come. These are exciting issues that truly test the limits of our knowledge and abilities. We look forward to continuing our vital partnership with Denmark and Greenland to ensure a bright future for the Arctic region and all who live there.

Thank you.



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